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Rail Trip Commemorates 50 Years of Turkish 'Guest Workers' in Germany

The first gastarbeiter (guest workers) from Turkey came to Munich from Istanbul in 1961. Some of them took part in the recent 50th anniversary trip celebrating the bilateral recruitment agreement—and looked back to often painful memories.

Sirkeci Station, Istanbul, Turkey (jwalsh)
Sirkeci Station, Istanbul, Turkey (jwalsh)
Roland Preuss and Björn Finke

MUNICH/ISTANBUL -- The guest workers end up having to wait: fitting symbolism for this particular chapter in the history of relations between Germany and Turkey. At just past noon, the 10-car train starts to move out of the station. Television cameras are covering the event live. The director general of TRT, the state-owned Turkish station, waves from the door. After Ibrahim Sahin has presented himself to viewers, the train stops, then rolls back into Istanbul's Sirkeci station. Only now can the real guest workers board: 34 Turkish workers who migrated to Germany between 40 and 50 years ago, and are now reliving that train journey to Munich.

The men and women climb into the cars without a murmur of complaint. If they're used to anything, it's waiting: for their next permit, for their next trip back home, for some recognition of all the work they've done. They're going to need some more of that patience on this trip. The train goes via Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Austria before reaching Munich. These men and women – now retired – are retracing the same route of the historic trains full of guest workers, when the journey took 50 hours and they had to sit on hard wooden seats. On arrival in Munich, the workers were dispatched to various parts of Germany. The arrival at Munich's main station this past Sunday was the symbolic highpoint of the celebration: 50 years to the day of the recruitment agreement signed between Germany and Turkey.

At the time, Ankara was glad to get poor, often dissatisfied citizens off its back and on to Germany. Those who left were overwhelmingly from the lowest classes. In Turkey, they were despised as "black Turks," only to be envied when some came back from Germany with their savings. Even so, they were still looked down on as proletarians. In Germany they were sought-after as workers. But there too, they faced resentment and prejudice. In Germany, just as they did in their home country, they formed part of the lowest classes. The men mostly worked on assembly lines. Most of the women worked as cleaners.

Marked by the view that people in both countries held of them, suddenly on this journey the workers found themselves the center of attention, in the company of cameramen and ministers. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag was among the VIPs on the journey along with Maria Böhmer, who is in charge of integration issues at the German Chancellery. It seemed a good opportunity for some of the workers to point out what they'd achieved – and what they suffered.

Hostility at home

Mehmet Ali Zaimoglu is one of them. He wanted to go to university, he said, but his family didn't have the money. As the 1950s rolled to an end in Istanbul, his prospects didn't look good. His mother and brother had died, and his father was pressuring him to marry a woman eight years his senior. "They forced me; I didn't even know the woman," says Zaimoglu. His life seemed pre-programmed, poverty included. There was just one way out: emigrating.

A half-century later he wanted all the politicians and the journalists to hear about his achievements, what he did for Germany. He started out, paid 2.20 marks an hour, as an electrician in Frankfurt. He then made his way modestly up the ranks at a large mail order firm called Neckermann. Now 73 years old, Zaimoglu experienced hostility when he returned home. That was 1964, when he drove back to Turkey in a minibus he'd bought in Germany. With the bus, he was able to earn money in Turkey taxiing people between cities. Rather than congratulate him for his relative success, people confronted him with "envy, sometimes even hate." So two years later he headed back to Germany. He admits he did not consult his wife in his decisions; in 1972, they were divorced.

Zaimoglu says he never wanted to be the typical guest worker, employed in a steel factory or on a construction site. He was a voracious reader – and finally ended up writing a book himself: "Wenn das fremde Land zur Heimat wird" (When a Foreign Country Becomes Home). Zaimoglu was no longer an electrician; he was an author.

The men and women on the trip are being celebrated in their role as guest workers, but it's not a role they want to play anymore, nor one they necessarily recall with fondness. A dressmaker from Berlin reacted with annoyance to the question of whether or not she had set off to Germany in 1964 for the money. She claimed that she and some of her girlfriends had come out of a sense of adventure, and that in any case the pay they received was nothing to write home about.

In Zagreb, there's a reception given by the Croatian railway; the Turkish VIPS are invited, but there's not enough room for most of the guest workers who get to wait outside in a bus. In the train, clearing space for the politicians, a couple of men in cheap suits manhandle two women workers as if they were extras on a film set. On Sunday, Zaimoglu is one of the workers who will get 30 seconds of time to address the group. Despite the way they are treated, the men and women are grateful – for being invited by the TV station and the hotel rooms paid for.

At the very end of the trip, in Munich's station, the former workers finally get their short moment of recognition. Two of them delivered some words, in the presence of the Turkish television boss and the politicos. This time it was Deputy Prime Minister Bozdag's turn to wait.

Read the original story in German

Photo - jwalsh

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